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Taking Fire Calls : Municipal Building Has Alarming Past

June 01, 1986|JOAN DEKTAR | Special to The Times and Dektar is a North Hollywood free-lance writer. and

Only a few of the Los Angeles municipal buildings that date to the 1920s are still around. City Hall, completed in 1926, remains the best known. By contrast, a 1925 building may be the least known city structure.

Until its latest renovation, it never had a name plaque. Even now it retains its original appearance, except for a microwave tower. A description might come off the page of a Raymond Chandler detective novel.

It's the three-story, tile-roofed, yellow building at 2228 West 6th St., on the north edge of MacArthur Park.

When it was built in what was then called Westlake Park, the Los Angeles Fire Department named the building the Westlake Alarm Center, a title soon shortened to "Westlake."

Had Telegraph System

The center cost $1 million in bond money, even then, and was designed to be the fire department's communication nerve center.

It replaced the center in the basement of the old City Hall on Broadway near 2nd Street, which was closed upon completion of the new City Hall at 1st and Spring streets.

The first telegraph system was the heart of the then new center.

Because most households didn't have telephones, an alarm was signaled by someone's racing to the corner to pull the handle in the red alarm box, mounted on a post or telephone pole. The transmitter sent a coded message with the box number to the center. Then an operator sent a coded dispatch command, ringing bells at the fire stations.

In the new alarm center, an emergency telephone switchboard was also installed, looking to the future. It soon got more use than the telegraph system.

Center Relocated Downtown

The next advance was radio, so equipment for it was installed too. The box alarm system was finally discontinued in the 1960s, marking the end of an era.

To meet expanding needs caused by the size of the city and to keep up-to-date with computerized systems, comprehensive emergency planning and security, the department relocated the dispatch center to City Hall East in 1973. That left the Westlake Center (which still didn't have a sign) vacant.

But in setting up affirmative-action programs to recruit applicants for the fire service, the department found a new role for the building, still sound and comforming to earthquake safety standards.

The city fire department converted Westlake into a training center to help candidates prepare to apply for training. Working up to passing the physical strength tests, body building exercises are arranged in a gymnasium set up on the second floor. (Offices are on the first floor, locker rooms on the third.)

In addition to physical training, the department has set up a study program in two classroom trailers next to the building, so candidates can prepare to pass written tests. With these changes came another one:

After 60 years there is a name posted on 6th Street: Westlake Training Center.

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